Why You Want What You Can’t Have

Tame your inner green-eyed monster.

Photo: Business woman staring out a window

Shiny objects or social media posts may make your eyes “green,” but what really causes jealousy? “I think that what people are doing actually is trying to find happiness and comfort in their lives,” says Betty Phillips, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chatham County, North Carolina and specialist in the effects of envy on stress. “It’s not just the cars and the money. It’s part of a general discontent.” Turning that discontent around in your life can be challenging, but it’s about shifting your focus.
We’re not just talking about your emotional well-being here; these feelings affect your whole self. “Envy and jealousy are just words, but more important is the degree of anger and hostility that a person has," Phillips says. These behaviors turn into sleep issues, work stress, poor concentration, and overall unhappiness.  
Take control of jealous behaviors and learn to appreciate what you have with these tips from Phillips.
Tune Out
Clicking around social media can make you jealous, Phillips says. When you’re looking at your high school rival’s profile—that’s not going to make you feel better. “Basically, people are looking for things that they feel like they don’t have,” she says. “They attach it to someone else, then these fantasies start to revolve around this other person.” They think: I will be happy if I have these things, which can lead to jealous patterns. People have a natural tendency to feel envious, but it’s also aggravated by our lifestyles—especially by TV commercials and the idea that you can “buy” happiness, she says. Phillips asks her clients to remember that social media profiles are just pictures that shouldn’t mess with your head and suggests limiting the amount of time you spend on social sites. 
Say Thanks
People who feel jealous tend to express that “everyone else” has something that they want, Phillips says. “One of the things I see a lot these days is a longing for family and friends, or [that] the ones that they have are not satisfactory.” Or, you may feel envious because you’re unhappy with your social bonds. Phillips suggests keeping a gratitude journal, writing down the things you're thankful for each day. It has been shown to improve a sense of well-being and add value to the relationships you do have.
Give A Little
Any kind of volunteering, whether it’s stocking a soup kitchen or donating old clothes, counteracts jealousy. “Kindness and altruism has proven to be really, really helpful [against jealous behaviors],” Phillips says. “Giving something of what you have to others is just the opposite of envy.” Finding a volunteer opportunity can help you counter your negative feelings.
Mull It Over
Need a foolproof envy antidote? Get real. “Think about what you have and look at people who you know don’t have those things,” Phillips says. The point is not to use others’ hardship to your advantage, but to be realistic. While someone with an expensive handbag, a big house, and a seemingly perfect family may make you feel down, realize that things behind the scenes may not be so utopian, she says. “If they really think about it, that person is a person like most people.” Everyone has their problems, no matter how together they seem. Shift your attention toward your own life and what makes you happy, not envious.
The Bottom Line
The next time jealousy gets you down, just remind yourself that it’s a part of the human condition. “Animals aren’t hostile toward the dog who has the ball, they just want the ball. It’s our higher-level brains that start making those comparisons,” Phillips says. Practice positive behaviors to keep jealousy at bay. Ask yourself: “What can you do in your own life to increase your happiness and your happiness lifestyle?"